Here’s a brief article from this morning’s Times on the life of Subbuteo’s inventor Peter Adolph.
I was a Subbuteo enthusiast as a boy. So were most boys. In the 1980s, it was the closest you could get to a simulation of real team football. I helped found a Subbuteo League at school, and over long summer holidays I played out interminable multi-team competitions on my own. Enormous divisions containing representative sides from every village in Bedfordshire, a league cup, and guest appearances by Manchester United and Celtic. The United who “ran” out onto my turf were a best-of side picked by Sir Matt Busby in his “Manchester United Scrapbook”, so my Newton Blossomvilles and Clapham Rovers and Old Wardens lined up against dead men at times. Even with that kind of advantage, they were rarely good enough even to draw.
It’s fair to say at this distance that Subbuteo was a real disappointment. It was hard to play – even at eight or ten years of age, crawling on the floor for ninety minutes plus stoppages is tough on the elbows. Put the pitch on a table and you have to choose between a playable surface and wrinkles – or put your pitch over a blanket and create the felt equivalent of thick mud. And it didn’t, really, resemble football. The first real game I saw that reminded me of Subbuteo was the inter-geriactric final in Father Ted.
When FIFA ’99 came along, it took over my life for about four months. It looked and sounded a bit like Match of the Day. The screen angles were the same, and it had commentary! Given that televised soccer had been ninety percent of my experience of football, that, and not the whole-pitch Subbuteo experience, seemed realistic. It was also realistic that the sides I controlled were constantly steamrollered, at least at first. But by the end, months of constant practice (when I moved my eyes away from the screen, the room, though still, seemed to shift and rock) taught me what to do. I ended up selling all of Manchester United’s glamour players, and buying a team of Turkish waiters just to keep it competitive. But even they couldn’t lose, and I lost interest.
Its successor, FIFA 2000, had a “classic team” section enabling you to match the 1954 Magyars with e.g. Cruyff’s 1974 Holland. These games were played out in anachronistic sepia or in the heavenly light of Mexico 1970. Strange, how the electronic Motson was only excited about the football itself. I found it moving, the idea that one could call them all back, just once more, to play this comparatively silly and innocent game. On this computer, I’ve a Pathe clip of the Busby Babes walking out onto the pitch. There they all are, shouldering past you: Mark Jones, Roger Byrne, Tommy Taylor, Ernie Colman, Duncan Edwards – and you want to call them back too, for one more game, and whilst that last game’s going on, slip away from the pitch and find a telephone, open negotiations for them with I don’t know who.